Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Can I tell you about my new love? It's called the HIV Story Project. Based in San Francisco, the group produces short films on HIV/AIDS, provides media services and training to HIV/AIDS nonprofits, and also hosts a video storytelling booth at different locations that sparks community dialogue on HIV/AIDS. (At the end of this post, please check out the donations page for the ambitious film project they have going on.)

I'm especially enamored of the storytelling booth, which is called "Generations HIV." As you'll see in the video above, the booth has a little bench, and you face a video touch screen and a small video camera. Anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, can go into the booth and do one or more of three things: record a question for a future user, answer a question that someone else has recorded, and/or record their own story about HIV/AIDS. It's the interactive nature of the thing -- you're talking with people who have been or will be in the booth -- that distinguishes it from other similar endeavors I've seen. The booth gets everyone in the same virtual "room" to have a dialogue across time and place.

Not to mention, across generations. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of HIV/AIDS, which means that generations of people have lived under the epidemic. The project is not just for gay people, or just for people with HIV; the virus is so widespread that virtually everyone has some connection to it, or at least a feeling about it. Either you have HIV, or you know someone who does, or you've been concerned about getting infected, or you live near an AIDS hospice, or you read the news about HIV. It's inescapable.

So why bother telling stories about it? Certainly it's more worthwhile to develop new drugs, provide social services for people with AIDS, or show folks how to properly use a condom or clean their needles. These are all valuable contributions to the fight against AIDS. But in a way, community health rests on storytelling. Let's take the gay community as an example. When AIDS first surfaced and gay men were hardest hit, the community had already developed some sense of personal and collective history. Individuals had their own stories of overcoming oppression and coming out of the closet, and they could connect their stories to those of others when they got together for sex or a drag show or a street protest or whatever else. A burgeoning film and theater scene -- with movies and shows like "Word is Out," "Boys in the Band," "The Times of Harvey Milk" -- further allowed gay people to create a collective story nationally. Newspapers and books extended the line historically, back through the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots, back through the Mattachine Society, back through persecution during World War II, even as far back as the ancient Greeks. It was, in short, these stories that actually made (and still make) the gay community. Without a shared sense of history or relationship, there is no gay community, only a bunch of gay individuals. That community power is what made gay men in the early 1980s educate themselves about HIV, or launch prevention efforts, or fight for treatment. And every time a gay man is about to have sex, the whole community is in the room there with him, and the whole history of gay people -- if he lets them in. So if he might have unprotected sex with someone who is HIV+, the underlying questions might be how it will feel, whether it'll be worth it, is this his only chance at love, does anybody care if he lives or dies. Those are questions that are answered when a community shares its stories. And that's just the example of the gay community. AIDS is of course now a global pandemic that cuts across all lines. 

So that's why I'm crushed out on the HIV Story Project. 

When I spoke with executive producer Marc Smolowitz, the booth was located in "Under One Roof," a retail shop in San Francisco's Castro district whose proceeds benefit the AIDS community. From there, the booth will be traveling to other Bay Area locations, and the group is planning to take the project online and to other cities around the nation and globe.

HEY! If you've read this far, please now go to the HIV Story Project's "Kickstarter" page. Now through October 1st, they're looking for $8,000 in pledges to help complete "Still Around," their series of 16 short films by as many filmmakers about people living with HIV. It's part of what they call their "video AIDS quilt for the 21st century." I hope you'll join me in pledging whatever you can -- $10, $25, $50, or more. Go do it now! Here again is the link, so please click away! You can even get some cool thank-you gifts, like a DVD of all the completed films. Have you clicked yet?

Monday, August 30, 2010


Mashable, the 92nd Street Y, and the United Nations Foundation are teaming up to sponsor The Social Good Summit. That's a half-day conference featuring some crazy smart people talking about how digital media can help fulfill the UN Millennium Development Goals, the organization's framework for creating a healthier, safer world free of extreme poverty.

A list of confirmed speakers can be found on this page, and it includes keynoter Ted Turner, UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador Annie Lenox, Susan Smith Ellis of (RED) fame, Chris Hughes of Facebook and now Jumo, and a bunch of other folks. 

Tickets for the live event are $85, and can be purchased here. The event will also be streamed live online. 

This is not a storytelling event per se, but the idea of using stories for social change is so ubiquitous now that I'm confident the topic will come up! Many grassroots efforts (including the Obama campaign) are using a "narrative" approach to organizing that asks participants to tell three stories: the story of you (where you're coming from), the story of us (who is the team that has come together), and the story of now (what the team's objectives are). The idea is that people become more invested precisely because they are telling these stories together; everyone becomes part of a larger story. Digital media can facilitate just this kind of storytelling. I'll be writing about some of the narrative aspects of the Social Good Summit, but I hope you'll watch the webcast or attend the live event yourself, and contribute your thoughts.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


The archives of the GLBT Historical Society is full of the stuff, they say, that you might find in your lesbian aunt's attic. Or, if you don't have a lesbian aunt, or if you do but she doesn't have an attic, then you might find it in somebody else's lesbian aunt's attic. Or maybe their gay uncle's attic. You get the idea. Based in San Francisco, the GLBT Historical Society collects, preserves, and interprets the history of gay / lesbian / bisexual / transgendered people and the communities that support them. The organization sponsors exhibits and programs, drawing from the many thousands of items in their archives, including letters, journals, early gay publications, queer radio programs, ephemera, costumes, and some truly out-of-the-ordinary items! You'll see an just how out-of-the-ordinary in the video above, in which Managing Archivist Rebekah Kim talks about the collection and shows off some choice pieces. 

There's plenty to love about the archives. Me, I dig just how many stories are contained in each of the hundreds and hundreds of boxes. Life stories that people record in their journals. Artifacts that can support historical research for films or books. Photo albums, scrapbooks, club advertisements, and other suggestive fragments that researchers, writers, or artists can only guess at, and perhaps spin a story out of. The Society even has an artist-in-residence who invites other artists to respond creatively to selected materials from the vast collection.

The archives are the basis for more than just some cool art projects. Founded in 1985 by Willie Walker, a nurse at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis in the United States, the Historical Society documented the lives and struggles of some of a large swath of a generation or two of gay men who were dying off. It was not out of the question at that time to think that AIDS might cause a serious and even irremediable rupture in gay male history, forever separating the previous generations from those to come. Gay men were, after all, terribly stigmatized for their sexuality and for AIDS, and no one else was eager to record their history. Nor was any mainstream museum or publisher looking to support lesbian, bisexual and transgender history. To establish a historical record is to say, in essence, "we matter," and it is no less important today than it was when Willie Walker took stock of the crisis a quarter-century ago. It's no coincidence that the GLBT community that gave birth to this archive is also one of the strongest politically, and now has this resource -- its history -- to put in service of the fight for full equality. 

Be sure to visit the GLBT Historical Society's website. They're scheduled to open the nation's first GLBT museum next month! 

I hope you'll also check out the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City, and the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles. Another project I like is the ACT UP Oral History Project, documenting the AIDS activist group's history. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Thomas Jefferson had it good. Monticello, the Charlottesville, Virginia home that he designed and lived in for the last 17 years of his life, is beautiful. Granted, today we have much better roads, climate control, and lighting -- not to mention way better TV programs! -- but even back in the day, I'll bet it was a pretty cool place to while away your time. If you were Thomas Jefferson, that is. Not so much for his slaves, including Sally Hemings, by whom Jefferson fathered at least one and quite possibly several children after the death of his wife (Hemings' half-sister, interestingly).

According to the tour guide at Monticello, the most common questions from visitors are about Hemings, and about how Jefferson could reconcile his authorship of the Declaration of Independence with the fact that he owned slaves. I imagine the short answer to be, "with difficulty." He was a complicated man, of course, and one who personally benefited from slavery even as he condemned it. For him, as for some other people of the era, the choice was between justice and Union. He famously wrote of slavery, "We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." 

This quote and other of Jefferson's writings on liberty were presented in the tour and exhibits at the site. And yet somehow I felt as if the only way to adequately deal with slavery at this, one of the nation's most significant and popular historic sites, would be to openly admit that the nation was built on notions of liberty, yes, but also on a gross and centuries-long injustice.  What I got instead was a pleasant tour of the house and grounds that did not shy away from slavery, but hardly plumbed its depths, either. I guess you can only cover so much in less than an hour! Still, plenty of the contradictions were there to see, hear, or read.

Jefferson had an ample library (large parts of which he had to sell off in his impecunious periods), and yet slaves were not nearly so well equipped with books or reading skills. (In 1831, just five years after Jefferson's death, Nat Turner's Revolt in Virginia led to restrictive laws against the education of slaves.) Jefferson and other relatives are neatly buried in a well-tended cemetery, but the African-American cemetery past the parking lot was poorly marked and, in its day, probably even more poorly tended. And even now, the Monticello Association (of Jefferson's descendants) does not officially recognize the heirs of the Hemings-Jefferson line, in spite of DNA evidence uncovered in 1998. That this was not deeply and openly explored at Monticello is unsurprising, I suppose, but a shame nonetheless. After all, in this place come together such deep-rooted questions as: Who is American? Who gets to tell their story? And how do these stories establish one as a person and a citizen? A slave's story was an assertion of humanity, power, and even American citizenship and birthrights. No wonder slave literacy and communications could provoke such violence. To its credit, Monticello sells a goodly number of books on slavery for adults and kids alike, and has "Getting Word," a project that locates and records the oral histories of descendants of Monticello's enslaved families. 

While I was in Virginia, I spent some time with a group called Thousand Kites, a national dialogue project addressing the criminal justice system. (Last year, I podcasted about them here.) More to the point, Thousand Kites was training prison reform groups to record on video stories of people affected by the criminal justice system -- not least of all, prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. 

It is at once shocking and totally predictable that their experiences should so little inform public knowledge and public policy on prisons. Prisoners' stories can't get out for various reasons: high rates of illiteracy, restrictions on writing implements, the scrutiny and (some would say) censorship of letters coming out of prison, exorbitant charges for phone calls from prisons, and their geographical isolation.

For many people on the outside, such privations are reasonable; after all, incarceration is supposed to be a punishment, and there are legitimate security concerns that necessitate these regulations. And yet, prison reform activists point out, the prisons are stuffed with people in on nonviolent drug offenses, a disproportionate number of them African American. 

It's hard not to draw a historical line: Slaves were denied education and access to reading and writing materials, and now a disproportionate number of their descendants are subject to the same limitations. It's this connection that led at least one activist I met to say that prisons are the new Jim Crow. (And Jim Crow was, in its time and way, the new slavery.) All of this made the questions about today's prisoners feel painfully reminiscent of the questions about yesterday's slaves. Who gets to tell their story, who goes down in history, and who gets to be an American?

Friday, August 6, 2010



Here's a clip from a Japanese animated film adaptation of "Barefoot Gen," a 1970s series of manga comic books by Keiji Nakazawa, about a young boy who survives the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and inspired by the author's own experiences. This clip is animated, but graphic.

Today is the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I'm struck by how some hibakusha, or A-bomb survivors, are torn between the great difficulty of describing what they saw and felt, and a strong need to do the same. Some just have to testify. The diminishing group of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are the only people in the world with first-hand experience of the effects of nuclear war. (I'd say they're distinct from soldiers and civilians who've seen nuclear bomb tests in Nevada or in the Pacific.) The real difficulty of testifying is not, it seems, in coming up with words for the scene itself; many people have described the flash of light when the bomb exploded, or the burned corpses and ruined buildings and the derailed streetcars with bodies all piled up. The problem is that words cannot fully convey the horror they felt -- after all, we as listeners would have had to be there in order to truly grasp it -- or the overwhelming desire they have for this never to happen again. I'm not sure if that's a failure of language, or a failure of imagination.  

Here's a page with some recorded testimonials of hibakusha, with English translations.